Digital cameras offer a versatile feature known as the drive mode, which determines the camera’s behavior when the shutter button is pressed. From Single Shot Mode and Continuous Shooting to Time-Lapse Photography and Remote Drive Mode, camera drive settings provide photographers with a range of options to suit different scenarios.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the various camera drive modes, delving into their functions, advantages, and ideal use cases. By understanding the nuances of each mode, you’ll be able to make informed decisions on which drive mode to select for capturing stunning photos, whether you’re working with DSLR, mirrorless, or compact cameras.
To find the drive mode setting on your camera it may be a physical dial, or you may need to go into the menu.
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Camera Drive Modes Explained
What are the common drive modes on digital cameras?
There are three drive modes on most digital cameras. The most common ones are:
- Single shot
- Continuous or burst mode
Let’s take a look at each of those modes and when you might use them.
Single-shot drive mode
In this one-shot mode, the camera takes one picture when you press the shutter button. To take a second image you must press the button again. This is usually the default mode on most cameras and is often represented by a single rectangle (far left icon above).
When to use this drive mode
It is suitable for most kinds of photography (with a few exceptions mentioned below). I personally use this mode most of the time for street photography, portraits, night photography, macro, and landscape work.
Continuous shooting or burst mode
In this mode, the camera will take multiple images as long as the shutter button is held down.
Some cameras may also have Continuous High (top row, second from the left below) and Continuous Low (top row middle icon below) or similar options. In Continuous High drive mode that camera will take the maximum number of images per second within its capabilities. Low means it will take fewer per second (check your camera user manual to see your camera’s options).
When to use this drive mode
It’s useful when photographing moving subjects, doing panning, or any time you want to capture several images in a row to choose from later. I recommend this mode only when needed, usually, that means a fast-moving subject so sports, pets, birds, toddlers, cars, etc.
On the flip side, I recommend that you do NOT use burst mode all the time! If you make the assumption that by using this mode you’ll end up with better photos of people, as one example, it’s simply not true.
All that will happen is that you’ll have 10 times more images to slog through making the culling process that much more daunting. AND often you don’t end up getting the best images that way, especially for people photos. Instead, take your time and press the button when you see the best expressions.
NOTE: When using this mode you may experience buffer issues, meaning the camera might have to pause to save the images before continuing. Both the memory card speed and file size are factors here. So if you need more images, you may have to consider shooting JPGs instead of RAW files or buying a faster memory card.
This mode sets a delay between the time the shutter button is pressed and the time the camera takes the picture. Often the default setting is 2 seconds, but some cameras allow you to adjust the delay to up to 10 seconds or longer. Think of self-timer mode as a delayed shutter release.
When to use self-timer drive mode
It’s a handy way to avoid touching the camera if you’re using a tripod but don’t have a remote release, or for getting into the photo yourself. For doing selfies or getting into a group photo, the longer delay is helpful so you can run and get into the frame.
I use this mode when I’ve forgotten to pack my remote trigger for my camera (then I use the 2-second timer) or when I want to get in the photo myself (then I use a 10-second delay).
Some cameras may also offer a continuous self-timer mode. It allows you to take multiple photos without running back to the camera to press the button again.
Other drive modes
Depending on the camera you have, you may have some other drive modes at your disposal as well. If you aren’t sure what your camera’s drive modes are, consult the user manual and look in the drive modes section.
If your camera has a wireless remote trigger, you need to use this mode to activate the device. Then when you press the button on the remote the camera will fire.
The first two icons on the bottom row below indicate remote OR self-timer mode. So choose one of these to use your trigger to fire the camera from a distance.
When to use remote drive mode
This is handy if you want to take multiple selfies or group photos with yourself included. You can then get into position, hide the remote in a pocket, and fire the camera from your position without having to run back and forth each time to press the shutter button.
Some cameras offer a panorama shooting mode that allows you to take an elongated image from one direction to the other (side-to-side or top-to-bottom). This is similar to what you’ll find on your cell phone but you get a larger, high-quality file to work with later.
The images below were taken with my Fuji XT3 in panorama drive mode. I didn’t have to do any stitching to create these in post-processing.
When to use the panorama drive mode
Use this mode if you want a quick grab shot of something that is panoramic. I use it a fair bit actually.
However, it is not a substitute for actually taking multiple images separately and stitching them together in the editing phase. The panoramas below were created by taking multiple images and combining them on the computer later (I used Lightroom).
The big difference between in-camera panoramas and stitched ones is the final image size. The image above is 10,326×5448 pixels, and the HDR above that is 6788×4820 – so they would make fabulous large prints for the wall. The camera-made ones above are only 6400×2160 and are also JPGs so they don’t have the same editing capabilities and level of detail (especially in the blown-out highlights).
To learn more about shooting and stitching panos read: How to Do Panoramic Landscape Photography with the Gear You Have.
NOTE: Often when using this mode the camera will only capture the pano as a JPG not RAW, so be aware. Also, make sure it switches back to RAW when you change back to single-shot.
Multiple exposure mode
As mentioned in another article, some cameras offer a multiple exposure mode. This allows you to take two or more images and merge them together in the camera as a double exposure as seen in the examples below. Think of it as an image overlay effect.
If you want to know more about how to do this, read: How To Harness the Power of Double Exposure Photography.
Mirror lock-up mode
This mode applies only to DSLR cameras which have a mirror inside that flips up and out of the way when the shutter is pressed. Activating this mode locks the mirror in the up position until the shutter is released.
When to use mirror lock-up drive mode
When doing long-exposure or macro photography this is a good way to avoid camera shake from the action of the mirror moving.
Silent shutter mode or quiet mode
Some DSLRs offer a quiet mode in which all sounds the camera makes are minimized. But a DSLR can never be 100% silent due to the movement of the mirror as mentioned above.
The last two icons in the top row below indicate silent mode on a Canon camera.
Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, can be truly silent and you can go into full stealth mode! To activate it though you will likely need to switch to using an electronic shutter and check the camera’s sound setting options as well.
This was essential for me to be able to do stills on a movie set recently! If my camera or I made a noise, I’d have gotten the boot! The drawback with this mode is that you’re never really sure it has focused or actually taken the photo.
When to use silent shutter drive mode
So I recommend using quiet mode only when necessary such as a wedding ceremony or perhaps photographing wildlife or bugs.
The bottom line on camera drive modes for photography
Drive mode is an essential setting so make it a priority to learn more about the options on your camera. Make sure you are selecting the best one for each photography situation.
If you want a handy reference for drive modes – as well as other 21 other cheat sheets – check out the Picture Correct Photography Cheat Sheets! (#aff)
Photography Cheat Sheets
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The set is beautifully designed, fully printable, and includes one sheet on each of the following topics:
- Camera Modes
- Exposure Triangle
- Focal Length
- Aperture & Depth of Field
- ISO Speed
- Shutter Speed
- Exposure Bracketing
- Exposure Compensation
- Minimum Shutter Speed
- Lens Filters
- Lens Cleaning
- Checking the Histogram
- Metering Modes
- Autofocus Modes
- White Balance
- Drive Modes
- Color Temperature
- Minimum Hand-Held Shutter
- Crop Factor
- RAW vs JPEG
- When Tripods Aren’t Allowed
- Megapixels & Print Sizes
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